Hollywood's men in black: A history of cinema's favourite colour from Brando to The Matrix

John Walsh traces a half-century of seeing cinematic men in black evolving from Satanic figures into good-buddy cool lawmen

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

There's a telling flashback scene in Reservoir Dogs which reveals how the leader of the gang, Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) allocated colour-coded names to each of the gangsters.

Cabot (pointing): "Here are your names: Mr White. Mr Blonde. Mr Pink..."

Steve Buscemi: "Why am I Mr Pink?"

Mr White (Harvey Keitel): "Who cares what your name is?"

"You're lucky you ain't Mr Yellow," growls Cabot.

"Why can't we choose our own names?" asks Mr Pink.

"Tried it once, doesn't work," comes the reply. "You get four guys fighting over who gets to be Mr Black."

Well, quite. When it comes to looking, or sounding, or dressing, or being cool, everyone wants to be Mr Black. The least colourful colour, the colour that is effectively the absence of colour, is the only colour people want to be. In the film, when the colour-coded jewel-thieves eventually go to work, they do so dressed like undertakers: Tierney, Keitel, Buscemi, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and the director Quentin Tarantino lope across the screen in matching black suits, white shirts and thin black ties. The look is pure outlaw chic.

Black has had an amazingly chequered career. To the Ancient Greeks, it was the colour of the Underworld, where Hades the King sat on an ebony throne. In Roman society, it was the colour of death and mourning, and the word for black, ater, had associations with evil and cruelty, as in 'atrocity'. In the Middle Ages, Satan was often depicted with black skin and wings; black was the colour of sin – but also, interestingly, the colour of power and secrecy. In the hierarchy of courtly love poetry, the black knight was the moody, enigmatic one.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, after top-quality dyes began appearing, black was adopted by monarchs and wealthy merchants in Italy and France. Later it went out of fashion, compromised by a transatlantic epidemic of witch-hunting ("How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!" is Macbeth's cheery first address to the witches). In the 19th century, people associated black with grime, soot, coal, the Industrial Revolution, and with the macabre and cobwebby horrors of Gothic literature. Painters argued about its merits: Gauguin pointed out that, in Nature, "Nothing is black", but to Renoir, "Black is the queen of colours".


In early 20th-century male fashion, it was invariably the colour of the formal dinner suit, with a satin seam running down the outside trouser-leg. But other uses have been found for the shade of night – in wool, in leather, in cotton shirts, in John Galliano's hats. While Coco Chanel's Little Black Dress suggests only one thing for its lady wearers – understated chic – the black-clothed male is a much more complex look. It connotes stark but sexy oppositions: priest and Satanist, knight-errant and butler, formal dresser and scary animal. It's effectively a multi-layered mask for the personality to hide behind, a three-piece version of dark sunglasses. And it's therefore been a gift to the world of film.

Since the last world war, as films emerged from monochrome to being invariably shot in colour, the semiotics of the on-screen Man in Black shifted dramatically. Year Zero for black-watchers was 1953, when two legendary bad-asses rode into town.

Moral ambiguity: Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta played the coolest hitmen in the world in Pulp Fiction (Rex Features)

One was Marlon Brando, astride his own real-life Triumph motorbike, as Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, the leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club. Like the other gang-members, Brando wears a zip-fronted black leather jacket, but it's somehow blacker, shinier and zippier than any of the others, with 'Johnny' embroidered on his left pec. He's a natural leader; when a rival gang shows up, led by the simian Chino (Lee Marvin) we learn that they all used to be part of the same biker community led by Johnny, until Chino staged a rebellion – Satan breaking away from Brando's leathery God.

The other badass was Jack Palance in the classic George Stevens western, Shane. He plays a hired psychopath called Wilson, who is brought into a land war between cowboys and cattle barons in 1862 Wyoming. The minute we see him, we know he's trouble, because he wears a black hat (unlike our hero Alan Ladd's pure white titfer) a black waistcoat and a natty black neckerchief. And here's the clincher: he taunts one of the ranchers (Elisha Cook, Jr) until the dumb farmer fatally draws his gun; but while Wilson's taunting him, he coolly takes a black glove from his pocket and fits it over his right hand – announcing the death sentence as coolly and surely as a high court judge plonking a black cap over his wig.

So black male clothes in the 1950s announced the bad guy, the cool bad guy, and the imminence of Death. The same elements attached to the titanically evil figure of Darth Vader in the first Star Wars movie, a quarter-century later in 1977. Vader's costume is breathtakingly black, right down to the mask, the helmet and gloves. Even the rumbling baritone (voiced by James Earl Jones) is pretty Stygian. We learn that he's a former Jedi Knight who "went over to the Dark Side" and helped the Galactic Empire destroy the heroic Jedi Order of warrior monks. So he's essentially another Satan who rebelled against God, his blackness of heart made emblematic by the head-to-toe ebony sheen of his uniform.

Good guys: Men in Black became the title of a movie in 1997, when Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones linked up, armed with enormous guns and memory-obliterating wands (Rex Features)

Something radical happened to cinematic men in black in the 1980s and 1990s. They became heroic, smart, buddy-buddy figures. The first such duo was, of course, John Landis's Blues Brothers in the 1980s. John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd played the R'n'B-loving paroled ex-convicts Joliet ('Jake') and Elwood Blues on a "mission from God" to raise money to help the Catholic orphanage where they grew up. Their matching black suits, black ties and dark glasses might hint strongly at villainy (well, they are ex-cons) but their whole shtick is to be no more than fun-lovin' scamps, organising concerts for charity in between car chases. There is nothing remotely Satanic about them.

Then came Batman, in 1989, and its sequel, Batman Returns, in 1992, both directed by Tim Burton, who rescued the superhero from children's-hour TV goodie and re-cast him as grown-up, brooding, graphic-novel avenger. Michael Keaton's Batman costume logically had to be black, since vampire bats are black, but – as with Count Dracula – it was a bonus that the hero should get to wear the colour of Hades while fighting crime.

The moral ambiguity of the crooks-you-can't-help-admiring in Reservoir Dogs had a second airing in Pulp Fiction, when Jules and Vincent (Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta) played the coolest hitmen in the world, dressed as extremely high-class bouncers and chatting about quarter-pounders before blowing away the dumb teens who stole something (we're never sure what) from Marsellus Wallace. The sight of Travolta's puzzled face splattered with blood, along with his black jacket and white shirt, became a classic image of Nineties cinema.

Hero of the hour: Keanu Reeves wears a drop-dead-gorgeous full-length black leather trenchcoat in The Matrix (Rex Features)

Men in Black became the title of a movie in 1997, when Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones linked up, armed with enormous guns and memory-obliterating wands. In their non-uniform black suits, they were smarter than the FBI men who regarded them with suspicion – they were good guys licensed to shoot to kill all funny-looking, interplanetary foreigners and keep the truth of their existence tucked away inside their tuxedos.

Two years later, in The Matrix (1999) dull computer slave Neo (Keanu Reeves) is wakened into reality by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) who explains to him that the world he inhabits is only a virtual one, and that a crew of rebels is fighting for their freedom. Neo can choose to believe or not believe this tall story, but probably chooses the former solely because the pockmarked-but-charismatic Morpheus wears the most drop-dead-gorgeous full-length black leather trenchcoat. Soon he has one himself, and is transformed into the hero of the hour.

The black trenchcoat was also, of course, the garment of the SS officer. Black shirts were the uniform of the British Union of Fascists. If you think only mad European warmongers liked to co-opt black as their colour of choice, look at the flag of Isis and think again. They're flying the Black Standard, the banner supposedly carried by the Prophet Muhammad and his soldiers. After a half-century of seeing cinematic men in black evolving from Satanic figures into good-buddy cool lawmen, it's a bracing reminder that the colour black, like the forces of evil, can't be pinned down by anyone for very long.